Traditional owners have described the destruction of sacred Aboriginal sites in South Australia during an attempt to fence off a national park as “totally heartbreaking”.
The damage to Flinders Ranges sand hills happened during work on a planned fence to stop stock from an adjoining cattle station from going into the recently established Nilpena Ediacara National Park, on the land of the Adnyamathanha people.
The national park was established in 2021 as a home for what has been called the world’s best Ediacaran fossil site, holding the story of Earth’s earliest animal life.
It has been nominated as a Unesco world heritage site.
The area also contains sand hills linked to Adnyamathanha storylines, some of which were destroyed by the earthworks.
The state’s environment and heritage department apologised and blamed “miscommunication”.
Traditional owner Regina McKenzie told ABC Adelaide on Monday there were “high density” archaeological sites along the proposed fence line and intangible heritage that was part of the Adnyamathanha belief system.
“It should never have been touched,” said McKenzie. “They should have negotiated.”
“It was totally heartbreaking,” she said. “What we saw was … archaeological sites totally disturbed.
“There were gaping big holes in the sand hills. It was horrible.”
Regina said the area was “so sacred” that law men have said the sand hills should never be touched.
“Our Aboriginal knowledge system … is storylines … Everyone thinks heritage is all about archaeology [but] it’s not just about archaeology, it takes intangibles and … it’s our belief system,” she said.
She thought the area was protected under Native Title.
Mike Williams, the department’s executive director of national parks and wildlife, said there was a “well intentioned” piece of work to put a boundary fence between the national park and the adjoining station.
The department had written to the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association on 30 August to get approval for the works, and given it 30 days to respond.
“Unbeknownst to us, a private contractor went onto the fence line and graded [it],” he told the ABC.
“We’re extremely disappointed and sorry that this has occurred. We take these matters very seriously in the department and we’ve got a long history working with the Adnyamathanha people in the district, and it’s quite saddening to see what’s occurred.
“It has, through some miscommunication, allowed some disturbance.”
The department stopped the work on 4 September and will now review what has happened, while traditional owners will inspect the site.